The first First Lady to Doll a Magazine Cover: “Hello…..Mrs. Madison.”

Dolley Madison (New York Historical Society)

Dolley Madison. (New York Historical Society)

Elected to an unprecedented four terms, Franklin D. Roosevelt served as President of the United States longer than any one man, even in light of the fact that he died just less than three months into his fourth term, in 1945.

Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (FDR Library)

Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (FDR Library)

One might naturally then assume that his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, a legend in her own right, served as First Lady longer than any other presidential spouse or designated hostess.

Someone else a century earlier, also a legend in her own right, however, figuratively, if not literally, had her beat by four years.



Third President Thomas Jefferson was a widower. His Vice President Aaron Burr was also a widower. His Secretary of State James Madison, however, was married to a woman very much alive. Animated, ebullient,  urbane, witty, accessible, engaging, charming, sympathetic, regal, and warm at that.

Martha Jefferson Randolph. (Thomas Jefferson Foundation)

Martha Randolph. (Thomas Jefferson Foundation)

While Jefferson never officially designated Dolley Madison as his White House hostess, she and her husband were practically family to the President, and actually lived with him in the Presidential Mansion (as it was then commonly called) at the beginning of his first term, in 1801, before they established their own household.

While Jefferson did just fine as a host on his own, gourmand, democrat, wine connoisseur that was he, whenever he had a large contingency of women guests at dinners, he always called on Dolley Madison to serve as his co-host for those evenings.

She did this throughout his two four-year terms, even assuming the primary role of hostess during the two winter social seasons when his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph was visiting.

Starting her husband’s own two-term presidency in 1809 with a big bang – the very first Inaugural Ball, Dolley Madison had not only ample practice as hostess of the presidential mansion but familiarity with the key political figures and social and civic leaders of the fledgling capital city. She might well have earned herself a footnote in history as a chummy hostess with rosy cheeks and an ample bosom.

William Woodward's mural of Dolley Madison saving George Washington's portrait from the White House before the British burned it duringthe War of 1812 (Montpelier) at Montpelier

William Woodward’s mural of Dolley Madison saving George Washington’s portrait from the White House before the British burned it during the War of 1812. (Montpelier)

Then the War of 1812 began, its most dramatic moment occurring when British forces stormed Washington, D.C. and burned federal buildings, including the White House.

Before they got there, however, Dolley Madison committed what would later be seen as a foresighted act of patriotism, ensuring that the large Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington not be allowed to be taken as a prize of war by the British and shown off in London as further humiliation of its upstart former colonies.

Word got out about her bit of bravery. In a day when it was considered almost insulting to mention a woman’s name in print, she was heralded for this act in a poem printed in national newspapers. one line running, “Mistress Dolly! Long live she!” By the time, the Madisons left the presidency in 1817, her legend was already preceding her.

It wasn’t just Jeffersonians who liked her.

Am early 1800's cartoon depicting Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the only known contemporary image of the third President's slave and mother of several children by him. (American Antiquarian Society)

Am early 1800’s cartoon depicting Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the only known contemporary image of the third President’s slave and mother of several children by him. (American Antiquarian Society)

Although the Philadelphia editor Joseph Dennie, who went by the pseudonym pf “Oliver Oldschool” was a rabid Federalist who despised everything that Jefferson and his acolytes stood for, including “Mr. Madison’s War” he fell under the magic of Mrs. Madison herself.

Meeting her “on the occasion of a splendid fete, which was given by his excellency M. Daschkoff, the Minister from Russia, in honor of the natal day of his sovereign,” Dennie was  impressed by her “cheerfulness” and “intelligence.”

Dennie was the publisher of one of the first national magazines, the Port Folio.

Yet despite his magazine’s rabid anti-Jeffersonian tone (it had been a primary venue for spreading the story of Jefferson’s relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings), he was dazzled by Dolley:

“We remarked the ease with which she glided into the stream of conversation and accommodated herself to its endless variety.

In the art of conversation she is said to be distinguished, and it became evident in the course of the evening that the gladness which played in the countenances of those whom she approached was inspired by something more than mere respect.”

Dennie went a step further.

In breaking what was still the propriety of respect for a woman of the elite class, he not only described her in print but he decided to show her to the nation. He had an artist who carved blocks of wood intended to be tabbed in ink and then pressed as an engraving on paper, copying Dolley Madison’s image from an oil portrait. He then mass-produced the woodcut engraving.

And had it bound on top of the other pages of his monthly magazine, right smack on the front cover. Dolley Madison, the first First Lady whose image was used on the cover of a magazine. a

Nothing more solidified the idea that this presidential wife was unlike all other wives – she was a bona fide public figure.

Joseph Dennie.

Joseph Dennie.

We have no record of just what Dolley Madison thought about being perhaps the first American woman to appear on the cover of a national magazine, let alone the first “President’s Lady” to be so honored.

By her overt words and deeds, however, she did conceive of herself as having an important and public role, considering it one which made the nation as much her constituency as it was her husband’s.

And as for having having her image now spread throughout the country and for all eternity, Dolly Madison may have already been taking care of that on her own.

In old age, while she made sure that everyone would know that “credit is mine” for saving Washington’s painting, she rarely seemed to mention the fact that, before the British could burn the White House and all that was left in it, she also made certain to rescue one other portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Her own.

Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart. (Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts)

Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart. (Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts)

Categories: Dolley Madison, First Ladies, First Ladies Public Image, History, Individual Presidents, James Madison, Presidents, Thomas Jefferson

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6 replies »

  1. hi Carl-enjoyed the article very much- I have tried to post my comments after each article but for some reason they are not going through. Anyhoo- quite the media celebrity that Mrs Madison….if not for her aptly named son “Payne” she might have had a more comfortable old age. Still a great great lady.

    Richard Klein New York, NY

    On Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 8:26 AM, Carl Anthony Online wrote:

    > ** > posted: “[caption id="attachment_15658" > align="aligncenter" width="619"] Dolley Madison. (New York Historical > Society)[/caption] Elected to an unprecedented four terms, Franklin D. > Roosevelt served as President of the United States longer than any one man, > even”

  2. Hi Carl! First of all, I love your website. I volunteer for the NPS and do programs and lectures on the First Ladies. Your books and articles are ALWAYS crazy useful! That being said, I recently read an article White House History Magazine (number 31). The article was titled Unraveling the Dolley Myths and was written by a researcher named Scofield. She asserts that there is actually little evidence to indicate that Dolley actually DID serve as hostess for Jefferson that often. She goes on to debunk several other “weird” Dolley myths out there, but that particular point was interesting. After reading it I thought, “Huh… I wonder what Carl Anthony would say…”

    Just curious!

    • I think she may be right on a technicality. The issue is our 20th century determination to specifically label, codify, streamline and peg every deed into a locked category. There is proof that over the course of the eight years of the Jefferson Administration, Dolley Madison was invited by Jefferson to formal dinners – and given his arm as escort – when he had other women guests. She also helped familiarize Jefferson’s daughters Martha and Maria with the social customs of Washington when they came to stay with him in the White House. Certainly Jefferson raised Dolley Madison’s profile by so honoring her as his escort into dinner. And since the Madisons did initially live in the White House with him, and Dolley Madison showed visitors the rooms, including his bedchamber, it was easy to characterize her sense of familiarity as being “en famille,” as they used to say. Only when First Lady history was first being written in the Victorian Age, with its emphasis on domesticity and the argument that women didn’t need the vote to be equal because they reigned in their designated domain of the home that Martha Jefferson Randolph, despite her mere two social seasons of her father’s eight years as President, and Dolley Madison, who was the “lead” female at his mixed=gender dinner parties were “First Ladies” or “official White House hostesses” of the Jefferson Administration. The Victorians couldn’t seem to cope with a gap in the history of First Ladies so felt the need to pick a woman honored by the President and living at the White House, even for a time, and designate her as “First Lady.” However, all that said, there is perhaps a more important component to “being First Lady” which has nothing to do with clothes, plates or parties – and that is the trust of a wife, woman relative or close female friend, in which to confide, turn to for basic human support, bounce ideas off of, ask to help out as an “emissary” or “spy,” or “liaison” to a political rival or enemy to learn some information or smooth some wounded ego. I would argue that both Martha Randolph and Dolley Madison both played that role for Jefferson, intermittently.

      All that said – thank you Andy for such praise for my work and this website. It is a lot of work and a labor of love. Every week I question the value of providing it as a “Public service” when my time might be more wisely spent – and yet I find it helps train my storytelling, sharpen my writing, and widens my own perspective.

  3. John Payne Todd appears to have been an entitled son whom Dolly Payne Madison more or less enabled. My impression of him is similar to my impression of Florence Kling Harding’s child, Marshall DeWolfe. Both would appear to my uneducated eye to be: self-absorbed, alcoholic gamblers. Florence’s father attempted to control Marshall DeWolfe but with little success. The difference between them is that Dolly had no one to advocate for her except her Jemmy whereas Florence had her own resolve, her rather bellicose father and of course “Warn” Harding. What I find sad is that were it not for the kindness of Congress – members who had known her and her great service to America – she would have been homeless and destitute. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Dolly I believe stayed in a rooming house in the District to be near her friends. I think good friends tried to take care of her, however, she was far too proud. I don’t have a great deal of respect for Payne even though we know relatively little about him. My impression, Mr. Anthony, is that with a few excellent exceptions, Presidential children have by and large been complete flops – and some of their descendents were not much better. There are of course, notable exceptions.

    • Well – your words Kevin, not mine 🙂 I think its very hard to spend a whole life being held up to comparison against the standard of a father who was President! I think Mrs. Madison must take some blame for not exercising some discipline and I think Mrs. Harding must be forgiven of some blame because she was in dire poverty and her father essentially “bought” her son away from her. If there’s blame to go around for Marshall DeWolfe, I’d have to say it was more a matter of Mr. Kling’s need to control the lives of everyone around him.


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